Canada Soccer president sees post-pandemic positives, on and off the field

·8 min read

Nick Bontis laughs when asked about his work schedule

Bontis, who turns 52 on May 27, juggles his duties as Canada Soccer president with his day job as an associate professor at McMaster University's DeGroote School of business.

"I'm laughing because I had no idea how much work I'd be doing," said Bontis. "But it's fun, it's exhilarating. It is two full-time jobs, I have to be honest with you."

"When I first got elected in November, there wasn't really much going on in November or December. But as soon as January came, oh my goodness it was 24-7 every day," he added. "Crisis management is one way to describe it. But when you're sending a national team down to Florida for the first time in the middle of a COVID pandemic, there's just so many rules, so many processes. So many things we had never done before, obviously."

He called it a "baptism of fire," given ever-changing rules and regulations from the different countries that Canadian players call home.

The Canadian teams have learned from it, sharing best practices, and Bontis takes pride that Canada Soccer has had just two positives among 1,726 COVID tests since January in its "controlled environment" (both of which came from people reporting to camp).

Bontis chooses to see opportunity in crisis, saying the pandemic has given Canada Soccer "an opportunity to reset the soccer enterprise, if you will, for the country."

Part of that is collecting feedback from the soccer community. Canada Soccer is asking for those interested in sharing to fill out a survey (via www.canadasoccer.com) by May 31 to help determine priorities ahead of finalizing its 2022-26 strategic plan.

While Canada Soccer has solicited opinions before, Bontis says this survey is important because of the financial impact of COVID-19.

"There's not the opportunity to invest in every single thing we wanted to invest in," he said. "I mean let's be honest. We're going to have to pick and choose. The priorities have to be recovery, at least in the short-term."

Bontis acknowledges that the pause in play is lasting longer than expected.

"It's frustrating. I don't profess to be a health professional but if you look at other parts of the world, they have opened up," he said.

Bontis, a member of the Western Mustangs Sports Hall of Fame, played his last indoor club game March 11, 2020, the night before sports essentially shut down. A father of two, his boys have been unable to continue at Toronto FC's academy because of health restrictions,

"We would have hoped outdoor season would have been OK," he said. "But it's not just soccer obviously. There's frustrations with people who golf, there's frustrations obviously with people who play tennis. And frankly those two sports don't even have body contact.

"It is a source of frustration but we've always done what the health authorities have told us. And that's what we will continue to do."

The soccer menu varies across the country.

While play is starting again in Newfoundland, P.E.I. and New Brunswick, elsewhere it's mainly a waiting pattern. The hope is that will change sooner than later.

Canada Soccer says the pandemic resulted in a 41 per cent of reduction in revenues in 2020. Player fees accounted for just 17 per cent of revenue — normally they would account for about a third.

The bad news will continue for a while.

"These are lagging hits of financial crisis that we're dealing with," said Bontis. "I'm not going to tell you that the other buckets (largely sponsors and government) are any healthier, because they aren't."

Canada Soccer has joined Curling Canada, Hockey Canada, Rugby Canada, Skate Canada and Tennis Canada in asking the federal government for a $75-million sport recovery program to support local and grassroots initiatives for all sports reeling from the pandemic.

"I feel for government," Bontis said. "There's a million different stakeholders. Everybody's asking for support. So we've got to be patient and wait in line and get our support when it comes."

Canada Soccer's first target is to get back to where the organization was pre-pandemic.

"That's not going to be an easy task. It's going to take us some time. It could maybe take us a couple of years to get back to 2019 levels," Bontis said. "The ultimate goal is to surpass those levels as we approach 2026, using the momentum of (co-)hosting a World Cup."

The postponement of national team activity in 2020 reduced program and staging costs in half. Canada Soccer cut its work week to four days to further reduce costs, although its staff essentially kept working the same hours.

The eighth-ranked Canadian women are gearing up for the Tokyo Olympics, looking to win a medal for the third straight Games after back-to-back bronzes.

The men, ranked 70th, wrap up the first round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches against Aruba and Suriname in June. The hope is Canada wins its group and progresses to a home-and-away second-round playoff, also in June, with Haiti the likely opponent.

A victory there and the Canadians will reach the Octagon, the final round of qualifying in the region.

"I believe if the women do well in the Olympics and our men do well in the Octagon, that will provide a nice halo effect to help build up the health of grassroots soccer to where it was pre-pandemic," said Bontis.

Canada has been unable to stage national team games at home due to border restrictions and other pandemic-related issues. That has hit the bottom line.

Putting 20,000 fans at $25 a head in BMO Field translates into a gate of $500,000.

"It would be devastating for us if this continues through to the Octagon," said Bontis.

With seven homes games guaranteed and top opposition like Mexico and the U.S., the Octagon — set to run from September 2021 to March 2022 — would help refill Canada Soccer coffers. Assuming that fans are allowed in and they want to come.

While the sport is at a standstill back home, Canadian soccer has been front and centre abroad with the likes of Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Lille), Scott Arfield (Rangers), Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade) and Atiba Hutchinson and Cyle Larin (Besiktas) making headlines.

On the women's side, Kadeisha Buchanan (Lyon), Ashley Lawrence and Jordyn Huitema (Paris Saint-Germain), Jessie Fleming (Chelsea), Janine Beckie (Manchester City), Stephanie Labbe (Rosengard FC), Alyssa Lagonia (Servette FCCF) and Cloe Lacasse (Benfica) all took part in the 2020-21 UEFA Women’s Champions League.

"Here we are with a bounty of riches in the middle of a pandemic lockdown," said Bontis.

A member of Canada Soccer's board of director since 2012, Bontis has achieved some success already in changing the face of its leadership.

The recent annual meeting of the members saw the election of former track star Charmaine Crooks as vice-president confirmed. Hall of Famer Brittany Timko Baxter has joined the 14-person board, along with Charisse Bacchus and Stephanie Geosits, bringing the total, including Kelly Brown, to five sitting female directors.

Another goal is bringing a women's professional soccer team to Canada with Bontis saying the country is "open for business" on that score.

"But at the end of the day, it's private investors that make that decision," he said. "Me, my board, (general secretary) Peter Montopoli, and the rest of the staff, we've been very active in terms of speaking to potential investors for an NWSL franchise. In the short-term, in the next couple of years, I'm hoping that we can at least realize that goal."

His hope is one Canadian team will lead to another, as it did in Major League Soccer.

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MONTREAL HANGOVER: Saturday's 1-0 loss in Atlanta on a 94th-minute goal has been hard to shake, according to CF Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic. "I still feel a little bit of that feeling right now," the star playmaker said this week. "It's a game where if we took a point on the road in that atmosphere against a tough opponent like Atlanta, it feels like a win for us. But to give up the game in the 94th minute is a very tough feeling. But the beauty of the sport is there's always another game." Montreal, which scored six goals in its first two games of the season (1-0-1) has just two goals in its last four outings (1-2-1) and has been blanked three times.

EURO BOUND: CF Montreal forward Lassi Lappalainen has been called up by Finland for Euro 2020, which runs June 11 to July 11. The tournament was scheduled for 2020 but was postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic. Lappalainen has won seven caps for 54th-ranked Finland, which is in Group B with Belgium, Denmark and Russia.

THIS WEEK: Saturday — CF Montreal versus FC Cincinnati, 1 p.m. ET, at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Toronto FC at Orlando City SC, 7 p.m.; and Vancouver Whitecaps at Houston Dynamo, 9 p.m.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Three Canadians rank high in the MLS when it comes to most fouls suffered. Vancouver Whitecaps target man Lucas Cavallini tops the list at 23 while Toronto FC's Richie Laryea is third at 21 and New England's Tajon Buchanan are tied for fifth at 18.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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